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Music Special Collections Library Guide

Crash Course in Reading Sheet Music

Head of Special Collections & University Archives, Jessica Ritchie, has prepared this helpful beginner’s guide to reading sheet music. And, as always, archives staff is ready to answer any additional questions you may have!

Guide to Basic Understanding and Description of Sheet Music-

What is Sheet Music?

Sheet music is used as a record of, a guide to, or a means to perform, a piece of music. Sheet music can be studied to create a performance and to illuminate aspects of the music that may not be obvious from the act of listening. In addition to final published works, composers often retain hand-written or electronically produced records of the composition process. Authoritative musical information about a piece can be gained by studying the written sketches and early versions of compositions, as well as the final autograph score and personal markings on proofs and printed scores.

Modern sheet music comes in a variety of different formats. If a piece is composed for just one instrument or voice, the whole work may be written or printed as one piece of sheet music. If an instrumental piece is intended to be performed by more than one person, each performer will usually have a separate piece of sheet music, called a part, to “read.” Publication of works requiring more than four performers usually include several parts, though invariably a full score is published as well. The sung parts in a vocal work are not usually issued separately today, although this was historically the case before music printing made sheet music widely available.

Manuscript Paper

Music is usually written on manuscript paper, sometimes known as staff paper. A grand staff includes lines that will contain all of the notation necessary for reading a piece of music. Manuscript paper is preprinted with staves ready for musical notation. It can appear in many different variations based on the type of music, score, or instrumentation.

Identifying Information on a Piece of Sheet Music

Title and Composer/Arranger: 

Most sheet music will include the title of the piece and who should be credited for creating and/or arranging the piece. The creator of the piece is known as the composer. An arranger is someone who has re-conceptualized a previously composed work. This information is usually found at the top of the first page of the sheet of music.

The title of the piece is usually typed or written in large font on the top, center of the first page. The composer name and dates are usually in smaller font off to one side closer to the top of the first staff. If someone has arranged the piece, that information will be included in the credits as well. Some music publications will include this information on a separate title page. The information on a score or piece of music may be written in several different languages. The most common languages for pieces of music are English, German, French, and Italian. If the sheet music is a part of a composer’s collection of personal papers and manuscripts, the composer may not write his/her name on manuscript. Based on handwriting and other clues, one can infer that it was written by the creator of the collection.



The tempo of the piece (how fast or slow) is usually found on the left-hand side above the first staff. The tempo marking can also serve as the title of individual sections, also known as movements, of a piece of music. Sometimes this information will need to be recorded if the piece of music only contains one movement. Tempo markings are usually always written in Italian (or English for more modern pieces), even if the rest of the markings are written in a different language. Sometimes the tempo marking will include a number, which does not need to be recorded.





Composers will often indicate instructions for how to perform the piece under the tempo marking, i.e. “molto staccato,” which translates to “very sharply played.” These are instructions to the musicians about how to play the piece, and are not necessary information.

Tempo markings are usually written in Italian (or English in more contemporary compositions). When recording the language of a musical work, use the language of the lyrics, title or credits rather than the tempo. You may also ignore the ‘directions” listed under the tempo, which are also usually written in Italian or English.

The Title and credits are included at the top of the first page. This is a movement, or section, from the Ballet Sylvia.

Other Common Markings on Sheet Music

Symbols and special markings provide crucial information for both musical performance and study. Here are some common symbols and markings seen on sheet music:


Types of Sheet Music

When the separate instrumental and vocal parts of a musical work are printed together, the resulting sheet music is called a score. Conventionally, a score consists of musical notation with each instrumental or vocal part in vertical alignment. The term score has also been used to refer to sheet music written for only one performer. The distinction between score and part applies when there is more than one part needed for performance


Scores come in various formats, as follows:

  • Conductor's Score- A full score is a large book showing the music of all instruments and voices in a composition lined up in a fixed order. It is large enough for a conductor to be able to read while directing rehearsals and performances.


  • Miniature Score- like a full score but much reduced in size. It is too small for use in performance, but handy for studying a piece of music, whether it be for a large ensemble or a solo performer. A miniature score may contain some introductory remarks.


  • Study Score- sometimes the same size as, and often indistinguishable from, a miniature score, except in name. Some study scores are octavo size and are thus somewhere between full and miniature score sizes. A study score, especially when part of an anthology for academic study, may include extra comments about the music and markings for learning purposes.


  • Piano Score (or piano reduction)- is more or less a literal transcription for piano of a piece intended for many performing parts, especially symphonies and orchestral works; this can include purely instrumental sections within large vocal works. Such arrangements are made for either piano solo (two hands) or piano duet (one or two pianos, four hands).  Sometimes markings are included to show which instruments are playing at given points. They can also be used to train beginning conductors. Piano scores of operas do not include separate staves for the vocal parts, but they may add the sung text and stage directions above the music.

Beethoven's famous Symphony reduced to a simple piano version

  • Vocal Score (or, more properly, piano-vocal score)-  is a reduction of the full score of a vocal work (e.g., opera, musical, oratorio, cantata, etc.) to show the vocal parts on their staves and the orchestral parts in a piano reduction underneath the vocal parts; the purely orchestral sections of the score are also reduced for piano. While not meant for performance, vocal scores serve as a convenient way for vocal soloists and choristers to learn the music and rehearse separately from the instrumental ensemble. The vocal score of a musical typically does not include the spoken dialogue, except for cues.
  1. The related but less common choral score contains the choral parts with no accompaniment.
  2. The comparable organ score exists as well, usually in association with church music for voices and orchestra, such as arrangements (by later hands) of Handel's Messiah. It is like the piano-vocal score in that it includes staves for the vocal parts and reduces the orchestral parts to be performed by one person.
  3. A collection of songs from a musical is usually printed under the label vocal selections. This is different from the vocal score from the same show in that it does not present the complete music, and the piano accompaniment is usually simplified and includes the melody line.



  • Short Score- a reduction of a work for many instruments to just a few staves. Rather than composing directly in full score, many composers work out some type of short score while they are composing and later expand the complete orchestration. (An opera, for instance, may be written first in a short score, then in full score, then reduced to a vocal score for rehearsal.) Short scores are often not published; they may be more common for some performance venues (e.g., band) than in others.

An entire work by Wagner condensed to its basic elements to fit on one page

  • Open Score- is a score of a polyphonic piece showing each voice on a separate staff. In Renaissance or Baroque keyboard pieces, open scores of four staves were sometimes used instead of the more modern use of one staff. Scores from the Baroque period (1600-1750) are very often in the form of a bass line with figured chords and one or more melody instruments and/or voices.


  • Lead Sheet- specifies only the melody, lyrics and harmony, using one staff with chord symbols placed above and lyrics below. It is commonly used in popular music to capture the essential elements of song without specifying how the song should be arranged or performed.


  • Chord Chart or "chart" - contains little or no melodic information at all but provides detailed harmonic and rhythmic information. This is the most common kind of written music used for jazz or other forms of popular music and is primarily intended for the rhythm section (usually containing piano, guitar, bass, and drums).


  • Tablature- a special type of musical score, most typically for a solo instrument, which shows where to play the pitches on the given instrument rather than which pitches to produce, with rhythm indicated as well. This type of notation, which dates from the late Middle Ages, has been used for keyboard and for fretted string instruments (lute, guitar) and is still used for guitar pieces in the realm of popular music.

Sheet Music Parts

A part is a strand or melody of music played by an individual instrument or voice (or group of identical instruments or voices) within a larger work. The individuals in a string quartet do not read from a score while playing, because it would be too difficult for them to see their notes and they would have to turn pages constantly. Instead, each instrument’s line is taken out of the score and printed separately so that the musician can read their own part.

Violin I Part for Haydn Quartet in F Major. String quartets usually feature two violins with two different parts. This is the part for the first violin, also known as Violin I.

Recording Information from a Piece, or Collection of Music

When making a container list or describing a piece of music, you will need to record the information in the credits (composer and/or arranger), the title, the year (when available), the language, and instrumentation (or score). Sometimes, if you only have one movement or section from a larger piece of music, you will record that information as well. 

The information is recorded this way so that it will be discoverable by musicians. When musicians search for a piece of music, they look for the name of the composer first, followed by the title of the complete work, then the movement/section/song and the rest of the information.

Note: Classical music tempo markings are usually in Italian, even if the rest of the information is written in a different language. Record the language that you see used for the title and/or the credits as the main language.

  • Composer last name, first & middle
  • Entire work title
  • Movement/section/song title
  • Language
  • Date (if known)
  • Arrangement information (if needed)
  • Instrumentation/score


Example: Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. Don Giovanni. Finch' han dal vino. German. Arranged for voice and keyboard

Music Resources

General Music Resources:

Music Terminology and Symbols:

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